27 May 2017

ARTS IN ACTION: Jake Heggie, Frederica von Stade, Harolyn Blackwell, and Stephen Schwartz join Dallas Street Choir and Credo Community Choir in bringing the soul of Dallas to Carnegie Hall and Washington National Cathedral

ARTS IN ACTION: Dallas Street Choir & Credo Community Choir IMAGINE A WORLD - MUSIC FOR HUMANITY tour participants [from left to right] composer JAKE HEGGIE, soprano HAROLYN BLACKWELL, mezzo-soprano FREDERICA VON STADE, conductor DR. JONATHAN PALANT, and composer STEPHEN SCHWARTZ [Photos © by Ellen Appel (Heggie), Encompass Arts (Blackwell), Liebeman Photography (von Stade), Jonathan Palant, and Ralf Rühmeier (Schwartz)]

On 22 November 1963, the city of Dallas entered the national conscience with an enduring legacy rivaled by few other American cities. When an assassin’s bullets ended the life of President John F. Kennedy in the streets of Dallas, this large small town in the heart of Texas sprang to the forefront of the nation’s attention and has now remained there for more than half a century. An internationally-recognized Mecca in the worlds of oil and professional sports, Dallas has also been a port of call in cultural channels, hosting events as significant as some of the most successful of Maria Callas’s appearances in the United States and the American débuts of Montserrat Caballé and Plácido Domingo, Dames Joan Sutherland and Gwyneth Jones, and Magda Olivero and Jon Vickers. The 2010 opening of The Dallas Opera’s magnificent Winspear Opera House solidified a relationship as important as the greatest cultural milestones in the city’s rich history. With the world première of his groundbreaking—perhaps sea-parting would be a more apt description—opera Moby-Dick in Winspear’s inaugural season, American composer Jake Heggie became an indelible participant in the musical life of Dallas, to which he further contributed with the opera Great Scott, commissioned by The Dallas Opera and first performed in 2015. Captain Ahab’s legendary obsession and Arden Scott’s Wolfe-esque homecoming are now parts of Dallas’s narrative as integral as the tragedy in Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963. Further strengthening that bond with Imagine a World – Music for Humanity, Jake Heggie joins other artists and Dallas Street Choir and Credo Community Choir in bringing poignant elements of the Dallas experience to the East Coast.

In 2008, a few hours southeast of Dallas in Houston, the first version of Heggie’s operatic paean to family dynamics and dysfunction, Three Decembers, premièred with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, a beloved presence on Texas stages since her unforgettable Elena in Houston Grand Opera’s 1981 production of Rossini’s La donna del lago, in the central rôle of Madeline. Eight years earlier, von Stade, one of America’s most gifted vocalists and singing actresses, sang the pivotal rôle of a condemned murderer’s anguished mother in the world première of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at San Francisco Opera. With Imagine a World – Music for Humanity, the relationships among Heggie, von Stade, and the city of Dallas assume new vitality as they expand to encompass appearances alongside acclaimed soprano Harolyn Blackwell and noted Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz in performances charged with embodying the meaning of the words spoken by President Obama in eulogizing Dallas police officers slain in July 2016: ‘Character is not found in putting others down: it is found in raising others up.’

Guided by conductor and music educator Dr. Jonathan Palant’s philosophy of sharing culture with individuals and communities of all levels of privilege, Dallas Street Choir and Credo Community Choir are ensembles that celebrate diversity in both their membership and their singing. The performances in their eight-day East Coast tour bring the choirs’ message of ‘Homeless, not Voiceless’ to New York’s Carnegie Hall, where they will achieve the sad but triumphant distinction of being the first ensemble comprised entirely of displaced individuals to grace that institution’s legendary Perelman stage, and Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital.

The presentation of Imagine a World – Music for Humanity in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium at 8:00 PM on Wednesday, 14 June 2017, will feature the world première of Jake Heggie’s arrangement of George Hubbard Miller’s 1976 ‘Spinning Song,’ accompanied on the piano by the composer. Dedicated to Dallas Street Choir, the piece rejuvenates a melody familiarized in its original form by soprano Carol Webber. In addition to performances by Blackwell and von Stade, the event will feature selections from the hit musical Wicked performed by its creator, Schwartz. All tickets are priced at only $25, and proceeds from the concert will benefit organizations that work to alleviate and eliminate homelessness. For more information and to purchase tickets for the Carnegie Hall concert, please visit Carnegie Hall’s website or phone CarnegieCharge at 212.247.7800.

The performance in Washington National Cathedral at 7:30 PM on Thursday, 15 June 2017, will focus on sacred choral music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Mack Wilberg, Ola Gjeilo, and Elaine Hagenberg, alongside traversals by von Stade of pieces by Georg Friedrich Händel, Francis Poulenc, and Franz Schubert. Admission to the National Cathedral event is free.

Dallas is a city of extraordinary challenges, outstanding accomplishments, and tremendous promise exemplified by the individual stories, struggles, and successes of the 1.3 million people who call the city home. Looking beyond its sparkling skyline, Dallas is far more than Lee Harvey Oswald, Mary Kay, J. R. Ewing, and the Cowboys, Mavericks, and Rangers. Dallas is a city in which vast wealth dwells alongside devastating poverty. Lacking the basic human right of permanent shelter, the singers of Dallas Street Choir and Credo Community Choir reveal that the poorest in possessions are often the richest in spirit. In the Twenty-First Century, not one man, woman, or child in Dallas, Damascus, Doha, or Dublin should be compelled to only ‘imagine a world’ in which no one is denied the safe harbor of a home. Please support these artists in their efforts to share the wisdom gleaned from the streets of Dallas: music for humanity should be a validation of our unity, not a plea for recognition of the worth of strong, gifted people too many of us would rather exclude and forget.

07 May 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — MADAMA BUTTERFLY (E. Jaho, B. Jagde, T. Cook, K. Choi, I. McEuen, T. J. Bruno, M. Adams, A. De Vita; Washington National Opera, 6 May 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: Washington National Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY, May 2017 [Photo of the production in performance at San Francisco Opera by Cory Weaver, © by Cory Weaver & San Francisco Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Madama ButterflyErmonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San), Brian Jagde (Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton), Troy Cook (Sharpless), Kristen Choi (Suzuki), Ian McEuen (Goro), Timothy J. Bruno (Lo zio Bonzo), Michael Adams (Il principe Yamadori), Allegra De Vita (Kate Pinkerton), Andrew Bogard (Commissario imperiale), James Shaffran (L’ufficiale del registro), (Lo zio Yakusidé); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Philippe Auguin, conductor [Leslie Swackhamer, Director; Jun Kaneko, Production Designer; Gary Marder, Lighting Designer; Adam Noble, Choreographer; Anne Ford-Coates, Hair and Makeup Designer; Cindy C. Oxberry, Assistant Director; Lynn Krynicki, Stage Manager—Washington National Opera, Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.; Saturday, 6 May 2017]

In the struggle to cling to the precipice of survival as the Twenty-First Century drags the Performing Arts into the abyss, only poetry is compelled to endeavor as heroically as opera to justify continued support of its existence by exhibiting that Holy Grail of intangible necessities: relevance. What need has the modern world for rhyming couplets and sonnets laden with meanings readers must think in order to understand? Of what practical use is setting those couplets and sonnets to music and paying people in garish costumes to sing them in languages only spoken by specific communities? Perhaps such questions never occurred to John Luther Long, who heard his sister’s and brother-in-law’s tales of Methodist ministry in late-Nineteenth-Century Japan and recognized a poetic story that deserved to be told. Published in 1898, his short story ‘Madame Butterfly,’ an anecdote of a delicate Japanese woman lured into a contractual marriage with an American naval lieutenant, attracted the attention of stage director and playwright David Belasco, whose adaptation of the story reached the New York stage in 1900. Scenes of the Spanish-American War still fresh in audience’s minds, the play’s success was indicative of the resonance of one of humanity’s intrinsic fascinations: the labyrinths of love, fidelity, and honor. Men have likely sought companionship among the denizens of distant lands as since martial ventures first forced them into proximity, and who can deny the relevance in today’s society of the counterparts of Long’s and Belasco’s Butterfly and Pinkerton, American GIs and their exotic brides—and now their children and grandchildren?

It was in London, where Belasco’s play opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End only seven weeks after its Broadway début, that Puccini encountered the subject that he would bring to the operatic stage as Madama Butterfly. By his own admission, the native of Lucca, his international reputation already made with Manon Lescaut, La bohème, and Tosca, spoke even less English that the heroine of Belasco’s ‘tragedy of Japan,’ but Cio-Cio-San’s dramatic profile seized Puccini’s imagination as completely as that of Victorien Sardou’s Floria Tosca had done a few years earlier. First performed at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 17 February 1904, Puccini’s original, two-act version of Madama Butterfly was hissed, the hostile audience vociferously accusing the composer of having aped his own La bohème in an effort to repeat that opera’ s success. Despite an opening-night cast that included singers of the calibre of soprano Rosina Storchio, tenor Giovanni Zenatello, and baritone Giuseppe de Luca, who would also create the title rôle in Gianni Schicchi for Puccini in 1919, the opera’ s first production fell victim to insufficient rehearsal, the composer’s completion of the score having been delayed. Dismayed but perhaps not wholly surprised by the Milanese audience’s antipathy, Puccini withdrew the score and quickly reworked it, enlarging the opera’s structure with, in part, the addition of a third act and the Humming Chorus. Thus modified, Madama Butterfly reintroduced herself in Brescia on 28 May 1904, and was given a welcome worthy of her inherent nobility.

Though the opera’s Metropolitan Opera première in February 1907 was famously anchored by Geraldine Farrar as Cio-Cio-San, Enrico Caruso as Pinkerton, Antonio Scotti as Sharpless, and Louise Homer as Suzuki, with Puccini in attendance, Madama Butterfly in fact received its first American production in Washington, D.C., in October 1906. Washington National Opera’s 2017 production is therefore a homecoming of sorts. Having received more than 800 performances at the MET in the 110 years since it was first performed there, Madama Butterfly remains one of opera’s most enduring works, one that can exert its emotional force in virtually any staging that treats the story with respect. In Washington National Opera’s production, shared with Opera Omaha and San Francisco Opera, Japanese-born artist Jun Kaneko’s primary-color sets, projections, and costumes provided a two-dimensional backdrop against which the three-dimensional, pastel-hued narrative of Cio-Cio-San and her tribulations played out. Kaneko’s vivid color scheme sometimes seemed borrowed from a comic strip, making it seem as though Pinkerton’s home ship was the Enterprise rather than the Abraham Lincoln and bringing Lo zio Bonzo and his attendants into perilous proximity with Ku Klux Klansmen, but the production’s simple, sketch-based imagery was often effective. Even if it was less cumbersome than it appeared, hampering Cio-Cio-San with a butterfly headpiece was unnecessary, especially with a Julie Taymor-esque butterfly kite hovering above her: anyone who failed to realize that she was Madama Butterfly was not likely to appreciate the significance of the too-literal symbolism. The staging never impeded the relationship between the music and the listener, however, and the abiding unpretentiousness of Kaneko’s vision outshone the few flashes of affectation. The production’s most unforgettable tableau was that of the final moments of Butterfly’s life. The rising sun of Japan’s flag appearing on a projection that isolated Cio-Cio-San, the cut of her blade caused blood to stream from the familiar solar icon. Clearly, Kaneko intimated, it was the honor-at-any-cost culture of Japan as much as Pinkerton’s betrayal that claimed Butterfly’s life.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Soprano ERMONELA JAHO as Cio-Cio-San, baritone TROY COOK as Sharpless, and tenor BRIAN JAGDE as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in Washington National Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY, May 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Un nozze a Nagasaki: (from left to right) Soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio-San, baritone Troy Cook as Sharpless, and tenor Brian Jagde as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in Washington National Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, May 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

The efforts of Director and Assistant Director Leslie Swackhamer and Cindy C. Oxberry, choreographer Adam Noble, and stage manager Lynn Krynicki yielded movement and blocking that were stylized but never nonsensical. The principal goal of traditional Japanese geisha culture has never been the comfort of its practitioners, but the recreation of Nagasaki’s social order on the Kennedy Center stage was mindful of the physical demands of singing, generally avoiding postures and positions that interfered with vocal projection. Under Gary Marder’s deftly-managed lighting, Anne Ford-Coates’s hair and makeup designs were handsomely unobtrusive, her ingenuity asserted by the ease with which the singers assimilated into the milieu of a fanciful but reasonably authentic Nagasaki. So much of the psychological depth of Madama Butterfly is woven into the shimmering silk of the music that a production team can achieve greatest success in staging the opera by looking to the score. Restraint is the measure of integrity in Cio-Cio-San’s world, and this production largely allowed her the dignity of singing without silliness or overwrought gesticulation.

On the podium, WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin led the company’s choral and orchestral ensembles in a taut, sinewy traversal of the music. La fanciulla del West and Turandot are Puccini’s most aggressively modern scores, but Madama Butterfly, still too often dismissed as a weepy melodrama, is an inventive work. Under Auguin’s baton, the busy figurations that open the opera had, after a hectic, scrambled start, the acerbic bite of music by Stravinsky, suggesting the seedy underworld hidden by the colorful bustle of Nagasaki. Throughout the performance, Auguin liberated the score from saccharine sentimentality, magnifying details of the opera’s progressive harmonies without shifting focus away from Puccini’s trademark lush melodic lines. Though its tonal language is essentially late-Romantic, Madama Butterfly speaks a decidedly Twentieth-Century dialect, and it proved to be an accent of which Auguin is a master. The WNO choristers, directed by Steven Gathman, sang sweetly as Butterfly’s companions, zealously as the judgmental wedding guests, and heartily as the offstage sailors. Their performance of the Humming Chorus, a piece that captivates despite its banality, was hauntingly lovely, evocative of the unspoken thoughts that upend Cio-Cio-San’s optimism. Spurred by Auguin, the WNO musicians refused to be an uninvolved pit band. Why some musicologists and opera lovers persist in scoffing at Puccini’s skill as an orchestrator when there are so many embarrassingly sloppy performances of his operas is baffling, but WNO’s orchestra did Puccini and the audience the service of approaching Madama Butterfly’s difficulties with clear-sighted dedication to overcoming them. Clarity was the hallmark of this performance: at all volumes and all levels of dramatic intensity, Auguin and his musical collaborators were attentive to the patterns and textures of the music, neither accompanying nor commenting on the performance but fully, feelingly participating in it.

Capitalizing on the fantastic asset of the group of talented singers assembled in WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, this Madama Butterfly was populated with performers whose well-prepared singing portended even finer work in future productions. As L’ufficiale di registro and the Commissario imperiale, baritone James Shaffran—the sole member of the supporting cast who is not a current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist—and bass-baritone Andrew Bogard voiced their lines vigorously, representing Nagasaki’s civic administration with sonorous pronouncements. Connecticut native mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita portrayed Kate Pinkerton as a haughty late-Victorian figure with few outward signs of sympathy for Cio-Cio-San. De Vita sang ‘Glielo dirai?’ appealingly but coldly. The contrast with Cio-Cio-San could not have been more perceptible, but the similarities were also striking: following the path upon which the production guided her, De Vita explored the darker recesses of the formality and moral rectitude imposed upon women by their societies. Yamadori, the doting prince relentlessly pitched to Cio-Cio-San as a suitable husband after Japanese custom has recognized Pinkerton’s long absence as abandonment, was portrayed with interesting ambiguity by baritone Michael Adams, ostentatiously clothed in a gold jacket and spats in occidental fashion. The character’s frustration with Cio-Cio-San’s irrational rejection of his suit was unmistakable, but there was also a suggestion of sympathy in his singing of ‘Tra le cose più moleste è l’inutil sospirar.’ Bass Timothy J. Bruno raged chillingly as Lo zio Bonzo, exhibiting a solid top F in his declamation of ‘Cio-Cio-San! Cio-Cio-San! Abbominazione!’

IN REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano KRISTEN CHOI as Suzuki (left) and soprano ERMONELA JAHO as Cio-Cio-San (right) in Washington National Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY, May 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Un bel dì, vedremo: Mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi as Suzuki (left) and soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio-San (right) in Washington National Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, May 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Every tenor who sings Goro faces a bevy of decisions to be made about his interpretation of the part. That Goro represents an unsavory stereotype is unmistakable, but that stereotype is as much—perhaps more—Western as Eastern. He is pragmatic and insouciantly opportunistic, but is he truly predatory? In this performance, tenor Ian McEuen gave the character a sardonic edge but stopped short of outright villainy. In Act One, McEuen’s recital of the virtues of the arrangements Goro has made for Pinkerton was brightly voiced. His utterance of ‘Vanno e vengono a prova a norma che vi giova’ exuded the high spirits of a man certain of being generously paid, but his expansive phrasing of ‘Una stella dai raggi d’oro’ hinted at pride deeper than that of a salesman praising his wares. McEuen’s confident vocalism lent ‘Ecco! Son giunte al sommo del pendìo’ particular allure. The heartless laughter with which Goro mocks Cio-Cio-San’s innocent querying of Sharpless in Act Two about robins returning to roost was in McEuen’s performance like a thunderbolt: Butterfly was suddenly awakened to the reality of the outside world’s perception of her honorable fidelity. His ‘Il ricco Yamadori’ was more confiding than conspiring, and his ‘Dicevo...solo...che là in America’ rang with honesty rather than intentional cruelty. Possessing absolute security throughout the range of Goro’s music, McEuen had no need to resort to silly vocal effects or exaggerated enunciation, and he continues to refine his surprisingly subtle, intelligent interpretation of this often-loathsome character.

Cio-Cio-San’s maid and confidante Suzuki’s loquacious effusions in the Act One scene in which she meets her mistress’s fiancé were delivered by mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi with the excitement of a curious young girl eager to make a good impression. Tact is not foremost among Suzuki’s graces, but her lack of the demureness so carefully cultivated by her countrywomen is remedied by the breadth of her affection and concern for Cio-Cio-San. Choi voiced ‘Sorride Vostro Onore? Il riso è frutto e fiore’ with effervescent charm, not quite knowing what to say increasing rather inhibiting the flow of words. A palpable shift in demeanor overtook her as she uttered the prayer ‘E Izaghi ed Izanami sarundasico,’ the words still cascading from her tongue but the intent profoundly altered. It is also with prayer that Suzuki began Act Two, and her plea for the gods to end Cio-Cio-San’s weeping was touching. There was nothing malicious or coy in Choi’s singing of ‘Mai non s’è udito di straniero marito che sia tornato al suo nido,’ but her Suzuki rounded on the eavesdropping, gossiping Goro with blistering anger, her cry of ‘Vespa! Rospo maledetto!’ sung rather than shouted but slashing like a samurai’s sword. Choi delivered her part in the flower duet with rounded, attractive tones meticulously matched to those of her Cio-Cio-San. The simplicity with which she announced ‘Già il sole’ in Act Three touchingly conveyed the character’s physical and emotional exhaustion, and the tenderness evinced in her whispered ‘Come una mosca prigioniera l’ali batte il piccolo cuor!’ was heartbreaking. So engaging was this Suzuki that, as she slowly walked away in the opera’s final scene, separating Cio-Cio-San from her son for the final time, the gravity of the maid’s grief and uncertain future was overwhelming. Has she family of her own? Where will she go? How will she survive? Singing and acting with absolute submersion in the rôle, Choi was a Suzuki who mattered.

Equally dashing and drearily dutiful in the rôle of Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, baritone Troy Cook gave this cog in the wheel of American diplomacy unusual dramatic significance and specificity. How could even the most callow Pinkerton who could ignore this Sharpless’s warnings about the dangers of toying with the affection of a girl as trusting as Cio-Cio-San? The opening phrase of the consul’s entrance in Act One, ‘E suda e arrampica,’ takes the singer to top G, and Cook ascended to the tone rousingly. The top Fs in ‘Ier l’altro, il Consolato sen’ venne a visitar!’ also resounded stirringly, but it was the ardor of his description of Cio-Cio-San’s naïveté that truly soared. Skeptical of Pinkerton’s intentions from the start, Cook’s Sharpless was a moral compass that his seagoing friend seemed incapable of reading. When Cook sang ‘Miss Butterfly...Bel nome, vita a meraviglia,’ it was genuine admiration rather than flattery. The consul’s Act Two visit to Butterfly with Pinkerton’s letter is a descendent of Violetta’s painful discourse with Giorgio Germont in Act Two of La traviata and a precursor of the poker scene in Act Two of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. Cook voiced ‘Egli non vuol mostrarsi’ and ‘Ora a noi’ agitatedly, but the pity and sadness that shaped his rendering of ‘Io scendo al piano. Mi perdonate?’ radiated uncorrupted goodness. The ambivalence of the consul’s actions in Act Three weighted heavily on the man portrayed by Cook, his ‘Io so che alle sue pene non cì ono conforti!’ resolute but contrite, the consul’s gentle spirit crippled by the tragedy and his part in it. Cook’s mahogany-timbred, masculine singing occasionally seemed cautious, but he was an uncommonly thoughtful, introspective Sharpless.

Whilst singers with greater name recognition amongst casual operaphiles prance and preen upon the world’s stages, peddling their tired warbling and wobbling as bona fide artistry, tenor Brian Jagde is in the trenches, battling to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of important American tenors epitomized by Richard Tucker. Jagde’s Pinkerton in WNO’s Madama Butterfly was a burst of raw virility, his boyish fervor tellingly complementing Butterfly’s childlike reticence. Goro’s demonstrations of the funny little house delighted him, and the febrile joy with which he sang ‘Dovunque al mondo lo Yankee vagabondo,’ hurling his golden top B♭ into the auditorium, was arresting. Then, his ‘Amore o grillo, dir non saprei’ was the libidinous credo of a young man who had not yet learned of love’s capacity to injure, the three top B♭s produced with giddy freedom. Pinkerton’s attraction to Cio-Cio-San is unquestionably primarily carnal, but Jagde sang ‘Vieni amor mio!’ with such open-hearted kindness and defended her against her family’s denunciation with such a heated ‘Sbarazzate all’istante. In casa mia niente baccano e niente bonzeria’ that he in those moments seemed not merely the owner of a bride but a husband. The tenor’s finesse gave his singing of ‘Bimba, bimba, non piangere’ and ‘Dammi ch’io baci le tue mani care’ a softness that his use of dynamics, generally preferring forte, lacked. Jagde opted to join his Butterfly on the top C that ends their love duet, thrillingly expressing the lieutenant’s uncontainable desire. Returning in Act Three not as Cio-Cio-San’s savior but as the instrument of her final humiliation, Jagde’s Pinkerton grasped the enormity of the consequences of his actions, albeit too late to alter them. Pinned between the unspoiled girl who so earnestly deserved his love and the ‘sposa americana’ who demanded it, only flight could restore his peace of mind. The voice throbbed with emotion as he sang ‘Datele voi qualche soccorso.’ Pinkerton’s aria ‘Addio fiorito asil di letizia e d’amor’ is undeniably self-indulgent, but Jagde imbued it with self-recrimination, damning his own crassness instead of wallowing in self-pity. Pinkerton never reappearing as Cio-Cio-San writhed in the agony of her last breaths, his offstage calls of ‘Butterfly!’ tormented the girl as life deserted her. Jagde’s excellent diction compensated for what his voice lacked in Italianate morbidezza, and his nuanced acting and superb singing transformed his Pinkerton from a hedonistic rake into a man sensitive enough to recoil from the blood on his conscience.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ERMONELA JAHO as Cio-Cio-San (left) and tenor BRIAN JAGDE as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (right) in Washington National Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY, May 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Una sposa giapponese: Soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio-San (left) and tenor Brian Jagde as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (right) in Washington National Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, May 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

It is indicative of the significance of the appearance of Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio-San in Washington National Opera’s staging of Madama Butterfly that, to date, the MET career of this artist, celebrated for both bel canto repertory and rôles as demanding as Puccini’s Suor Angelica, is confined to a single performance of Verdi’s La traviata—a disgrace that will thankfully be partially remedied when she takes her portrayal of Cio-Cio-San to New York in the 2017 – 2018 Season. Kennedy Center gained the prestige of hosting her first Butterfly in the United States, and she débuted at Washington National Opera with a performance of wrenching individuality and insight. Vocally, Jaho’s place on the Butterfly spectrum is somewhere between the extremes of the lyric coloratura Toti dal Monte and the heavier voices of Clara Petrella and Renata Tebaldi. Svelte and breathtakingly beautiful, her performance as Cio-Cio-San recalled the best singing of Anna Moffo. Whereas Moffo sang Butterfly only for Italian television and studio microphones, Jaho has found her own unique solutions to the rôles vocal riddles, shirking nothing. Dramatically, she was in this performance the equal of the best Butterflies on stage and on disc. She sang the entrance music in Act One, ‘Ancora un passo or via,’ gorgeously, ascending without strain to the top B♭s and crowning the passage with a secure sustained D♭6 that hung over the house like the fog that glides along the Potomac. Writers and listeners have marveled for a half-century at the ‘little-girl voice’ that Maria Callas adopted in Act One of Madama Butterfly, but the voice that sang ‘Siam giunte. F. B. Pinkerton. Giù’ and ‘Gran ventura’ in Jaho’s performance was that of a fifteen-year-old child transitioning into adulthood. The vocal colorations with which the soprano emphasized the very different sentiments of ‘Nessuno si confessa mai nato in povertà’ and ‘Morto’ made the text come alive: in a single word, the dishonor endured by Butterfly’s father changed the mood of the scene. Jaho’s expansive phrasing of ‘Ieri son salita tutta sola in secreto alla Missione’ evinced the profundity of her conversion to Christianity. Devastated by her family’s reject, this Butterfly clung to the comfort offered by Pinkerton, Jaho voicing ‘Non piango più’ with heartbreaking timidity. The floating melody of ‘Vogliatemi bene’ poured from the soprano like a ray of light, and her incredible pianissimi were matched by the pealing top B♭ to which she rose in ‘Dicon ch’oltre mare se cade in man dell’uom,’ asking Pinkerton whether it is true that men in other lands pin butterflies to boards and encase them in glass. The glistening top C with which she surrendered to Pinkerton’s ardor rushed from the soul of the character, not from a diva’s throat.

Butterfly’s assertion that ‘L’americano Iddio son persuasa’ was greeted with laughter despite the seriousness with which it was presented, another instance of well-intentioned supertitles meddling with audiences’ comprehension of the contexts of words. The volcanic anger directed at Suzuki was tempered in Jaho’s portrayal by the realization that Butterfly has no one else upon whom to rely. In this performance, ‘Un bel dì, vedremo’ was not an interlude in the action but an organic advancement of it, the top B♭s determined and defiant. In the scene with Sharpless, the girlish playfulness returned in ‘Io son la donna più lieta del Giappone’ and ‘Yamadori ancor le penne dell’amor’—Butterfly was still no older than eighteen, after all. It was a woman and a frightened mother who voiced ‘Che tua madre dovrà prenderti in braccio,’ however, and, reminiscent of Callas’s Butterfly, this was the towering summit of Jaho’s performance. The bile that she largely swallowed when braving Suzuki’s doubts was unleashed on Goro, poignantly at odds with the maternal affection lavished on her son in ‘Vedrai, piccolo amor’ and the frenzied ecstasy of her sighting of Pinkerton’s ship. Showering her son in flower petals, Jaho’s Cio-Cio-San intoned ‘Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio’ enchantingly, blending lusciously with her Suzuki and reaching the three top B♭s effortlessly.

The dramatic juggernaut of Act Three progressed from a lovingly-voiced ‘Tu Suzuki che sei tanto buona’ to an exquisitely poised ‘Sotto il gran ponte del cielo non v’è donna di voi più felice’ that was disturbing in its eery serenity. Droning ‘Con onor muore chi non può serbar vita con onore’ on Fs at the bottom of the stave as she read the inscription on the blade that once feasted on her father’s blood, the warmth of life was already gone from this Butterfly. As Jaho sang it, ‘Tu? tu? tu? tu? tu? tu? piccolo Iddio!’ wielded the cataclysmic impact of Isolde’s Liebestod and Brünnhilde’s immolation. Those heroines are not mothers, and there was in Jaho’s almost unbearable depiction of Cio-Cio-San’s death a sense that it was the dishonor of being parted from her child rather than that of being abandoned by her husband with which she could not live. Some singers mistake Cio-Cio-San for a dragonfly, majestic but inert, and others for a moth, industrious but indistinct. Jaho’s Cio-Cio-San was truly a butterfly, one so real that it seemed that, if touched, her wings would leave stains of their incandescence on the molesting hands.

More than a century after the première—or, rather, premières—of Madama Butterfly, audiences continue to weep for Cio-Cio-San, sometimes without knowing or acknowledging why. Admittedly, the opera’s narrative is simplistic and formulaic. From an academic perspective, audiences know that what transpires upon the stage is only artifice, designed to manipulated the emotions, yet audiences feel a connection to the opera’s heroine. Bountiful as the ranks of those who seem immune to it are, compassion is a basic human compulsion, and to witness the thoughtless destruction of a being as bewitching as Cio-Cio-San, even in an incarnation who does not sing well, without responding on some level to her tragedy is virtually inhuman. Still, a Butterfly without a compelling Cio-Cio-San is like an empty cage: it is possible to be trapped, but escape is easily achieved. Even within the expanse of Kennedy Center, escaping the wingspan of Ermonela Jaho’s sublime Butterfly was impossible. Portrayed by a great artist, the death of that precious creature wounded with the sting of a personal loss. Whether in verse or in verismo, is there anything more relevant than that?

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano ERMONELA JAHO as Cio-Cio-San in Washington National Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY, May 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]I dolori di una madre: Soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio-San in Washington National Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, May 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]

03 May 2017

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Meyerbeer — GRAND OPERA (Diana Damrau, soprano; ERATO 0190295849016)

IN REVIEW: Giacomo Meyerbeer - GRAND OPERA (ERATO 0190295849016)GIACOMO MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864): Grand OperaDiana Damrau, soprano; Pei Min Yu and Pascale Obrecht, sopranos; Joanna Curelaru and Kate Aldrich, mezzo-sopranos; Charles Workman, tenor; Laurent Naouri, baritone; Orchestre et Chœur de l’Opéra national de Lyon; Emmanuel Villaume, conductor [Recorded at Opéra national de Lyon, Lyon, France, 28 August – 4 September 2015; ERATO 0190295849016; 1 CD, 81:27; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

A generation of Americans, artistic or otherwise, grew to adulthood with the notion that ‘When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are’ singing in their minds and hearts. Perhaps such optimism is warranted in the world of animated crickets and marionettes that are transformed into boys of flesh and blood, but darker realities prevail in the unenchanted realms of mortal men and their societies. The ugly, exasperating, confounding truth is that in opera, as in most aspects of life, who you are makes a difference. That Marian Anderson was a woman of color made a difference when she requested use of DAR Constitution Hall for a concert in 1939. That Henriette Gottlieb, one of the most promising Brünnhildes of the interwar years, was Jewish made a difference when her voice was lost to the death chamber at Auschwitz rather than resounding in the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. What differences the circumstances of his upbringing in one of Berlin’s most affluent and influential Jewish families made when Jacob Liebmann Beer wished upon his star—l’étoile du nord, surely—are now difficult to ascertain, but the effects wrought upon the posthumous reputation of the composer he became, Giacomo Meyerbeer, are all too apparent. Even now, more than 150 years after the posthumous première of his final opera, L’Africaine, the enduring effects of the disapprobation of Richard Wagner and his disciples, a betrayal of Meyerbeer’s early endorsement of Wagner and his ideals that may have been fueled in part by antisemitism, and the wholesale suppression of the composer’s music by the Nazi regime shape the narrative of Meyerbeer’s artistic afterlife. With ERATO’s disc Grand Opera, a new star appears in the firmament of Meyerbeer’s fortune: German soprano Diana Damrau. One recording cannot make amends for a century-and-a-half of ignorance and aspersion, but wishing upon a star with Diana Damrau’s artistic luminosity cannot fail to brighten the future for Meyerbeer’s music.

Born near the Prussian capital on 5 September 1791, three months to the day before the death of Mozart, Meyerbeer was, like his younger countryman Felix Mendelssohn, the son of a family of significant German Jewish artists and intellectuals. Unlike the childhoods of many celebrated composers, Meyerbeer’s youth was one of extraordinary privilege, his musical activities devoted to study of the piano under the tutelage of teachers including Muzio Clementi. Turning his attention to composition, Meyerbeer was a pupil of both Antonio Salieri and Abbé Vogler. Like Händel a century earlier, the young Meyerbeer endeavored to hone his gifts for vocal writing by immersing himself in the headwaters of the bel canto stream gradually broadening its floodplain to encompass all of Europe, arriving in Italy in 1816 and promptly making the acquaintance of his near-contemporary Rossini. Not unexpectedly, the German composer’s early Italian operas made liberal use of elements that endeared Rossini’s operas to audiences in Naples and Venice. By the time that Meyerbeer relocated to Paris a decade later, he was asserting his own unique voice, constructing upon the foundations built by Gluck, Grétry, Spontini, and Cherubini the monumental edifice of genuine French Grand Opera. On this disc, Diana Damrau retraces the course of Meyerbeer’s musical development, sampling operas representative of the composer’s evolution from imitator to innovator.

Beginning her survey of Meyerbeer’s astonishingly diverse operatic landscapes with Berthe’s aria ‘Mon cœur s’élance et palpite’ from Le prophète, first performed in 1849, at the height of the composer’s fame, Damrau lays claim to music still associated in the minds of many opera lovers with the very different voice of Renata Scotto, by whom Berthe was sung in both John Dexter’s still-discussed Metropolitan Opera production in the 1976 – 1977 Season and the CBS Masterworks studio recording of the opera. When the Dexter production was revived in the 1979 – 1980 season, Prophète’s last outing at the MET to date, Berthe was sung by Rita Shane. In her performance of ‘Mon cœur s’élance et palpite’ on this disc, Damrau’s vocalism places her on middle ground between Scotto and Shane, her approach lighter than that of the former and her timbre darker than the latter’s. It is apparent from the first bars—and especially when the line first takes her above the stave—that Damrau is on good form, with commendably few suggestions here of the effortful tonal production and insecurity that have sometimes affected her singing since the births of her sons in 2010 and 2012. In this traversal of Berthe’s aria, the confidence that marked the soprano in the early years of her career as one of her generation’s finest singers resounds anew, the reliability of her ascents into her rounded, carefully-projected upper register largely unimpaired. She articulates French text with the intuition of an artist born on the left rather than the right bank of the Rhine, and she manages in four minutes to create an uncannily complete characterization of the tormented Berthe, an emotionally complex woman undone by a convoluted power struggle between civil authority and religious fanaticism.

Only fitfully prefiguring Berthe in her vocal and dramatic demands, Isabelle in the masterful 1831 Robert le diable—refashioned for audiences beyond France’s borders as Roberto il diavolo—was another rôle in which Scotto made a lasting impression. Declaring her Isabelle’s trepidation to her beloved, tenor Charles Workman’s Robert, in an impassioned but eloquently-phrased reading of ‘Robert, toi que j’aime,’ Damrau touchingly evinces the character’s emotional turmoil whilst maintaining complete control over the vocal line. In this and all of the selections on Grand Opera, Damrau is elegantly aided in reaching musical and dramatic goals by the Orchestre et Chœur de l’Opéra national de Lyon and conductor Emmanuel Villaume. Much of this music was likely new to the Lyon musicians, but Meyerbeer’s stylistic spectrum is anything but foreign to them. Villaume conducted Damrau in Massenet’s Manon at the MET in March 2015, and the rapport honed in those performances persisted in the making of this disc a few months later. In his pacing of Meyerbeer’s music, the conductor supports Damrau instinctively, but the symphonic splendors of the composer’s orchestrations are not neglected. Alternately ebulliently Italianate, ruggedly Teutonic, and gracefully Gallic, the choral singing, orchestral playing, and conducting exhibit the same commitment to avoiding any semblances of business as usual that Damrau’s singing exudes. This emphatically is not assembly-line music making.

In the two centuries since its unsuccessful première in Vienna in 1814, when the composer was still in his early twenties, Meyerbeer’s opera Alimelek, oder Die beiden Kalifen has been completely forgotten, a destiny instigated by Viennese audiences’ hostile reception of the opera, a reworking of Wirth und Gast, a score written for Stuttgart in 1813. Damrau makes her account of Irene’s aria ‘Nur in der Dämm’rung Stille’ a masterclass in the art of singing Rossinian bel canto, her German diction as conducive to placing vowels on the breath as her unaffected Italian. In a potent scene from the 1844 Singspiel Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, a score from which Meyerbeer later extracted material for reuse in L'étoile du nord, Damrau’s Therese interacts with the vibrancy of a staged performance with mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich’s Vielka. The singers enliven the sisters’ lines in the recitative ‘Oh Schwester, find’ ich dich!’ by maintaining the naturalness of conversation. The sparkle of Damrau’s German in the Alimelek aria is complemented by the fluidity of her delivery of Therese’s aria ‘Lebe wohl, geliebte Schwester.’ The first Therese, Karlsruhe-born soprano Pauline Marx, was respected on the Continent for her portrayals of Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the heroines in Bellini’s Norma, La sonnambula and I puritani, Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco, and even Ortrud and Venus in Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. Otto Nicolai composed the rôle of Frau Reich in Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor for her, and, in addition to Theresa, her Meyerbeer repertory consisted of Fidès in Le prophète, Alice in Robert le diable, and Valentine in Les Huguenots. Marx’s voice was clearly an uncommonly versatile instrument, perhaps a competitor for the singular voice of Cornélie Falcon, for whom Meyerbeer wrote Valentine in Les Huguenots. The question of whether any current or past singers are or were heirs to Falcon’s mantle invariably prompts some of opera’s most heated debates. Damrau is unlikely to ever be seriously proposed as a legitimate Falcon, but the increasing fullness of her lower register and the authority with which she negotiates the tessitura of ‘Lebe wohl, geliebte Schwester’ elicit fascinating speculation about future paths in Damrau’s judicious choices of repertory.

Though successfully staged at London’s Camden Festival in 1975 and at Ireland’s Wexford Festival twenty-one years later, L’étoile du nord has not regained the acclaim that greeted its 1854 première. The opera’s libretto is a liability for modern productions, but the score is among Meyerbeer’s most appealing. Damrau voices Catherine’s recitative ‘Ah, mon Dieu!’ with unbreakable focus, establishing an atmosphere in which her tonal colorations shimmer. Accompanied by the hypnotic playing of flautists Julien Beaudiment and Catherine Puertolas, she lofts the sensual line of ‘C’est bien l’air que chaque matin’ with sounds that evoke the refreshing air of which she sings. L’Africaine, first christened by its creator as Vasco da Gama, did not reach the stage until 28 April 1865, four days short of the first anniversary of Meyerbeer’s death. In the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, L’Africaine has clung to a tenuous place on the fringe of the international repertory, contributing invaluably to the slow rehabilitation of its composer’s reputation. The ruminative depictions of L’Africaine’s dual heroines, Sélika and Inès, are among the most admirable accomplishments of Meyerbeer’s career. The focus on making beautiful sounds that heighten the emotional reverberations of the words gives Damrau’s performance of Inès’s recitative ‘Là-bas, sous l’arbre noir’ and aria ‘Fleurs nouvelles, arbres nouveaux’ a directness that transcends typical operatic artifice. Joined by Aldrich as Inès’s confidante Anna, Damrau makes ‘Anna, qu’entends-je’ a genuine discourse. Her poised ‘Adieu, mon doux rivage’ is Grand Opera’s sentimental dénouement: implicitly trusting the lucidity of Meyerbeer’s word setting, Damrau allows the music to communicate its allure to the listener rather than encumbering it with unnecessary contrivance.

It was with Il crociato in Egitto, first performed at Venice’s storied Teatro La Fenice in 1824 and notable for being one of the latest scores by a major composer to feature secco recitatives and a leading rôle written for a castrato, that Meyerbeer expanded his fame over all of the European continent. Recorded in studio by Opera Rara and in performance at La Fenice by Naxos, Il crociato in Egitto has a more robust presence on disc than many of Meyerbeer’s operas, but this hardly equates with familiarity. Her Palmide contending with bass Laurent Naouri’s Aladino in the rousing ‘D’una madre disperata,’ Damrau unleashes a thunderous display of temperament, tellingly contrasted with her limpid, urbane singing of ‘Con qual gioia.’ An example of the melodramma eroico genre popular in Italy in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, Emma di Resburgo enjoyed a phenomenal success at its 1819 première in Venice’s Teatro San Benedetto, its first run extending to more than seventy performances and leading not only to productions in other cities but the publication of the score, making it the first of Meyerbeer’s scores to appear in print. Already largely forgotten by the time of Meyerbeer’s death, Emma di Resburgo was likely unheard for 150 years until a 2010 concert performance in Vienna. Damrau’s performances of Emma’s recitative ‘Sulla rupe triste, sola’ and aria ‘Ah questo bacio’ reveal this to be music equivalent in quality to the best of Rossini’s contemporaneous work. [Two months prior to the première of Emma di Resburgo, Meyerbeer’s first Emma, Italian soprano Rosa Morandi, created the rôle of Cristina in Rossini’s now-forgotten Eduardo e Cristina, also at the Teatro San Benedetto.] Damrau’s bravura technique remains one of the wonders of the operatic world, but she separates herself from the ranks of singers with similar repertoires by pinpointing the dramatic purposes of coloratura cyclones.

Despite being the source of an aria intermittently popular as a concert piece for coloratura sopranos, 1859’s Le pardon de Ploërmel—more commonly known under the name of its goat-loving heroine, Dinorah—until recently shared Il crociato in Egitto’s fate of being available on compact disc in note-complete form only in an Opera Rara recording, a rumored studio recording with Sumi Jo never having materialized. Though singers as renowned as Luisa Tetrazzini and Amelita Galli-Curci espoused Dinorah, few sopranos active after the early decades of the Twentieth Century have explored the score beyond the famous aria ‘Ombre légère.’ Delivering the prefatory ‘Comme cette nuit est lente à se dissiper!’ with elocution worthy of another operatic heroine, Adrienne Lécouvreur, Damrau discloses psychological depth in the strains of ‘Ombre légère’ that most coloratura songbirds have failed to perceive. Damrau’s sopracuti now lack some of the freedom that they possessed in seasons past, but their impact is enhanced by the interpretive insight with which they are deployed.

It is almost exclusively to Les Huguenot, his epic and still grippingly topical 1836 tale of religious strife in Sixteenth-Century France, that what recognition Meyerbeer enjoys among most opera lovers is owed, thanks in no small part to Dame Joan Sutherland’s performances and studio recording of the opera. It was not without justification that Les Huguenots was described in the 1890s, when Lillian Nordica appeared as the opera’s regal heroine Marguerite de Valois in performances at the Metropolitan Opera, as the ‘night of seven stars’: only a constellation of great singers can present the mammoth score with the grandeur with which the composer infused the music. Backed by the Urbain and Coryphée of sopranos Pei Min Yu and Pascale Obrecht and the Dame d’honneur of mezzo-soprano Joanna Curelaru, Damrau brings to Marguerite’s well-known ‘Ô beau pays de la Touraine’ a voice likely resembling that of Belgian soprano Julie Dorus-Gras, by whom the rôle was first sung, more than either Nordica’s or Sutherland’s. Though compromised by sporadically faltering intonation, Damrau’s performance is in some ways revelatory, not least in the emphasis on extending the melodic line across the long spans desired by the composer. The soprano’s breath control enables her to achieve niceties of phrasing that many singers can only approximate through trickery. In the aria’s cadenza, here bizarrely reminiscent of the Air des clochettes in Act Two of Delibes’s Lakmé, Damrau resolves phrases uncertainly, movingly depicting the enmity that upends Marguerite’s tranquility. The trills in the de facto cabaletta, ‘Sous mon empire on ne respire,’ are crisply executed, and the expected interpolated top D is hurled out bravely. It has been widely reported that Damrau is slated to sing Marguerite opposite Bryan Hymel’s Raoul de Nangis at Opéra de Paris in a future season: her performance of ‘Ô beau pays de la Touraine,’ a sizeable portion of Marguerite’s music, on this disc shows her well on her way to conquering the rôle.

In her ‘personal and heartfelt preface’ to Grand Opera, Diana Damrau wrote that recording a disc of arias by Giacomo Meyerbeer was an ambition that formed during her studies, when she was discovering the magnificent variety of music available to a young artist with her incredible capabilities. With funding for the Performing Arts so dishearteningly imperiled, few of today’s singers are granted opportunities to bring their recording ambitions to fruition. In those rare instances in which artists’ goals and record labels’ resources intersect, those singers whose aspirations are denied are owed the recompense of the recordings that reach listeners wholly deserving that luxury. In the case of Grand Opera, both recording and hearing the disc are undertakings that are lavishly rewarded. Disney’s Jiminy Cricket also sings—with regrettable grammar—in ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ that ‘when a star is born, they possess a gift or two. One of them is this: they have the power to make a wish come true.’ In fact, with Grand Opera Diana Damrau makes two wishes come true: her own and that of listeners eager to understand why Giacomo Meyerbeer dominated opera in the Nineteenth Century to an extent rivaled only by Verdi and Wagner.

30 April 2017

CD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini — ADELSON E SALVINI (S. Alberghini, E. Scala, D. Barcellona, M. Muraro, R. Pogossov, D. Soar, K. Rudge, L.-M. Jones; Opera Rara ORC56)

IN REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini's ADELSON E SALVINI (Opera Rara ORC56)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): Adelson e SalviniSimone Alberghini (Lord Adelson), Enea Scala (Salvini), Daniela Barcellona (Nelly), Maurizio Muraro (Bonifaccio), Rodion Pogossov (Colonel Struley), David Soar (Geronio), Kathryn Rudge (Fanny), Leah-Marian Jones (Madama Rivers); Opera Rara Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Daniele Rustioni, conductor [Recorded in BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, England, in May 2016; Opera Rara ORC56; 2 CDs, 153:29; Available from Opera Rara and major music retailers]

If the repertories of the world’s most prominent opera houses were reliable criteria for judging the musical development of the greatest composers of opera, it would be easy to conclude that these composers emerged, Athena-like, from their respective places of origin as fully-formed artists with complete dominion over their faculties. The notable exceptions are Mozart, whose pre-Idomeneo operas have retained at least a measure of curiosity value among opera lovers, and Verdi, whose early scores still cling to the periphery of the international repertory despite performances that more often than not mishandle the music. The performance diaries of the world’s leading theatres would have one believe that Rossini’s career began with Il barbiere di Siviglia, Donizetti’s with Lucia di Lammermoor, Wagner’s with Der fliegende Holländer, Puccini’s with Manon Lescaut, and Richard Strauss’s with Salome. Some composers disavowed the scores via which they honed their talents and established their reputations, of course, but only a decidedly imperfect understanding of an artist can be gleaned from an examination of his œuvre that ignores formative works.

The quest to place Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpieces Norma, La sonnambula, and I puritani in the context of their creator’s artistic development begins in Naples in February 1825, when the young Sicilian composer, an eager pupil at the Real Collegio di Musica—today’s Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella—under the conservative supervision of Niccolò Zingarelli, introduced himself to the opera-loving Neapolitans with Adelson e Salvini. A setting of a Gothic-leaning libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola based upon a novella by François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d’Arnaud, a little-remembered author whose great popularity in late-Eighteenth-Century France offers insight into the later French appreciation for Edgar Allan Poe, Bellini’s first opera was a graduation exercise that was staged in accordance with the Real Collegio’s practice of giving especially deserving matriculants opportunities to wade in the tumultuous operatic waters of Naples in the relatively safe harbor of the Conservatory. Tailored to the abilities of the musical forces at the composer’s disposal, Adelson e Salvini offers intriguing glimpses of the genius of Norma attired in the fashion of Rossini. A source of great novelty for modern listeners, it was likely the assimilation of disparate elements—flashes of Bellini’s mature style, Rossinian bravura writing, and rollicking passages in Neapolitan dialect—that endeared Adelson e Salvini to Bellini’s fellow students at the Conservatorio, where the opera was performed every Sunday for a year! The opera’s conquest did not extend beyond the Conservatorio, but the informed enthusiasm of his peers surely boosted the young Bellini’s confidence.

Recorded in conjunction with a concert performance in London’s Barbican Centre, Opera Rara’s studio recording provides listeners almost two centuries after the opera’s first performance with a chance to hear Adelson e Salvini in a faithful reconstruction of the form in which it was first performed. Like a number of composers, Bellini later returned to his first opera, both to revise it, assisted by a friend, for future performances that never transpired and to plunder its best material for reuse in later scores. As performed here, the quality of the young Bellini’s craftsmanship is consistently apparent, but this traversal of Adelson e Salvini is anything but a scavenger hunt for tunes heard in later, ostensibly better scores. Though his innate melancholia dulled Bellini’s response to the plot’s comedic elements, Adelson e Salvini is unmistakably a young man’s opera, and the exuberance of conductor Daniele Rustioni’s pacing of the music emphasizes its vitality and continuity. With the crisp, characterful singing of the Opera Rara Chorus, expertly led by Eamonn Dougan, and the controlled but corpuscular playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra as the agents of his mastery of Bellini’s score, Rustioni shapes a performance enjoyable both as a harbinger of the composer’s future operas and as its own entity. The libretto of Adelson e Salvini cannot be praised for its literary calibre, but Rustioni’s keenly-judged tempi and unapologetic Romantic fervor enable the singers to make the most of the dramatic potential afforded by Bellini’s setting. Bolstered by the choristers’ and instrumentalists’ dedicated work, Rustioni and the cast generate more tension than the opera has any right to wield. With its overlong stretches of dialogue, mostly handled very capably by the cast, Adelson e Salvini is an unevenly-proportioned score, but Rustioni meticulously effectuates a balance between true bel canto and a novice composer’s moments of uncertainty.

This recording of Adelson e Salvini splendidly perpetuates Opera Rara’s legacy of filling supporting rôles with talented artists. As Madama Rivers, the Adelson estate’s seemingly inescapable housekeeper, a rôle sung in the opera’s première by a male singer, mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones is never heard without enjoyment but is at her absolute best in the Act Three finale, voicing ‘Ed in giubilo l’affano in ogni alma si cangiò’ with zeal and a captivating hint of irony. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge’s fretful Fanny, Madama Rivers’s niece and Salvini’s adoring pupil, jump-starts Act One with her forthright singing of ‘Immagine gradita del ben che tanto adoro.’ Both ladies ably lend their voices to ensembles. Bass David Soar delivers Bellini’s music for the guileful Geronio with delectably malevolent glee. His account of ‘Oh fortunati istanti’ with the chorus in Act One rings out strongly, his timbre attractive and his intonation secure throughout the range of his part. Soar’s singing in Geronio’s Act Two duet with Struley bursts with energy and dramatic purpose but always adheres to a bel canto line.

Filling the lungs of Colonel Struley with air of an aptly martial swagger, baritone Rodion Pogossov sings Bellini’s music with attractive, easily-produced tone and dramatic instincts befitting one of today’s best-qualified exponents of Mozart’s Papageno in Die Zauberflöte. Struley would benefit greatly from a dose of Papageno’s amiability, but Pogossov manages to make the dastardly colonel unexpectedly sympathetic, his machinations a means to an end rather than evidence of irredeemable villainy. The baritone sings his Act One aria ‘Tu provi un palpito per la dimora’ suavely, every note of the range in the voice and projected evenly. In the Act Two duet with Geronio, Pogossov equals Soar as a bel canto stylist, phrasing even foursquare passages with imagination. The virility of the baritone’s voicing of ‘D’inutili querele questo non è l’istante’ in the Act Two finale electrifies the scene more palpably than the offstage gunshot that is erroneously believed to have ended the life of the opera’s heroine. Throughout the performance, Pogossov enacts Struley’s intended vengeance for having once been exiled from Ireland with vocalism of polished bravado, extracting from Bellini’s writing the histrionic essence of a part that in many ways prefigures Ernesto in Il pirata and Riccardo Forth in I puritani.

An acclaimed interpreter of comic bel canto rôles including Bartolo in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Sulpice in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro brings to his performance of Bonifacio, Salvini’s Napulitano-spouting servant, extensive experience in music of Adelson e Salvini’s vintage. In truth, Bonifacio’s effusions go on rather longer than Bellini’s invention could sustain them, but Muraro devotes a magnificent display of comedic artistry to making the character engaging and, on the whole, succeeds impressively. The Act One cavatina ‘Bonifacio Voccafrolla? Lei l’ha in faccia, eccolo ccà’ is sung with brio, and Muraro’s affability perfectly complements his Santini’s impenetrable seriousness in their duet, ‘Vi, comme se storzella.’ The bass-baritone anchors the Act One finale steadfastly. Muraro performs Bonifacio’s Act Two aria ‘Ora vi’, lo caso è bello!’ with indefatigable brilliance, and his singing of ‘Miette l’esca vicin’a lo ffuoco’ in the Act Three duet with Adelson bristles with guarded insinuation. The microphone occasionally emphasizes an unsteadiness in Muraro’s voice that is markedly less discernible in the theatre, but steadiness is the hallmark of the dramatic trajectory of his performance. Bonifacio could easily be a buffoon: as sung by Muraro, he is a practical, pragmatic figure willing to play the fool in order to defuse explosive situations.

The Adelson of bass-baritone Simone Alberghini, like Muraro a renowned Rossinian, not least in parts like Figaro and Dandini in Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, is a man of appropriately aristocratic bearing, one whose innate benevolence is sorely tested by the opera’s madcap twists of fate. At his entrance late in Act One, Alberghini declaims ‘Obliarti? Abbandonati!’ powerfully, leaving no doubt that the lord of the manor has returned to oversee his realm. Not suspecting the cause of his friend’s agitation, Alberghini’s Adelson sings ‘Torna, o caro, o questo seno’ in the Act Two duet with Salvini mellifluously, confident that his imminent happiness will restore to the artist his own tranquility. Believing that he is ensuring Salvini’s future joy by presenting Fanny to him as a bride, Adelson launches the Act Two finale in earnest, and Alberghini sings ‘Ecco alfin quel caro oggetto’ jovially. Thereafter, bewildering events sweep over him like an avalanche, and the bass-baritone’s refined portrayal of Adelson reflects every emotional pivot that the character experiences without hectoring or hysterics. In the Act Three duet with Bonifacio, this Adelson’s scheming does not conceal his sorrow. The subsequent confrontation with Salvini inspires Alberghini to a stirring reading of ‘L’amico! Ah! Più non è...tu l’uccidesti!’ The singer’s bel canto credentials are put to excellent use in this performance of music for which his voice is virtually ideal.

In Adelson e Salvini’s Neapolitan première, the rôle of the painter Salvini was entrusted to Leonardo Perugini, a singer whose technical acumen is proved by the music that Bellini wrote for him to have been equal to the accomplishments of the finest tenors of his era. Opera Rara’s cast for this recording of Adelson e Salvini is graced by a tenor who answers to the same description among singers of his own time, Enea Scala. Intoning ‘Speranza seduttrice, fuggi da questo cor!’ in Salvini’s Act One duet with Bonifacio with eloquence and expressivity, Scala immediately confirms that bel canto is in his blood. In the duet with Nelly, the woman he loves despite her relationship with Adelson, that bel canto blood boils in Scala’s singing of ‘Ah! L’oppresse il dolor!’ and ‘E quest’alma lacerata da un affetto il più furente.’ The Act Two duet with Adelson is one of the opera’s climaxes, and Scala rivals Alberghini as a dramatic firebrand with his heartfelt voicing of ‘In seno al bel riposo fa l’alma ormai ritorno.’ In the Act Two finale, the tenor’s effervescent ‘È il Ciel, in questa guisa’ cuts through the scene like a lightning bolt. The beauty of Salvini’s Act Three aria with chorus and Adelson ‘Si cadrò....ma estinto ancora’ approaches that of Bellini’s writing for Elvino in La sonnambula and Arturo in I puritani, and Scala’s account of the aria intensifies the scene’s emotional potency. Indeed, the singer’s portrayal of the spirited artist heightens the persuasiveness of the performance as a whole. As recorded, there is a slight tightness in Scala’s singing, but this contrasts with the awesome freedom in this and other recorded performances of his ascents to top C. This recording has many virtues, but any listener hearing Scala for the first time in this performance of Adelson e Salvini would not be unjustified in thinking that the greatest of them is making the acquaintance of this phenomenal tenor.

The most surprising aspect of Adelson e Salvini’s 1825 première is that the rôle of the opera’s heroine Nelly was portrayed by Giacinto Marras, an adolescent male singer—and apparently rather a good one!—whose voice at that time was centered in the contralto register. Rossini wrote the rôle of Arsace in his 1813 opera for La Scala, Aureliano in Palmira, for the famous castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti, but the age of bel canto and the Elizabethan custom of casting young men in female rôles are not commonly thought to have intersected. [In 1825, the year of Adelson e Salvini’s Neapolitan première, Velluti’s London début in Aureliano e Palmira was little short of a fiasco, signaling the end of Europe’s prolonged obsession with castrati.] It is difficult to imagine even the composer of the travesti rôle of Romeo in I Capuleti ed i Montecchi intending any of his heroines to be sung by a male singer, and history unfortunately does not preserve a detailed account of how Marras came to be Bellini’s Nelly. Whether it was an instance of the youngster being in the right place at the right time, as it were, or of more controlled circumstances, Bellini’s music reveals that, like his colleagues in the first performance of Adelson e Salvini, Marras was—or was expected to be—a thoroughly capable singer.

Handsomely statuesque of figure and voluptuous of voice, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona is in no danger of being mistaken for an adolescent boy; nor is her Nelly in this recording of Adelson e Salvini apt to be mistaken for the work of one. The Act One romanza ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ is the score’s best-known number, and Barcellona’s performances of both Bellini’s original setting and a later revision of the aria pulse with the heart of the Bellini familiar from Norma’s ‘Casta diva.’ The mezzo-soprano’s singing in this performance is fulsome and flexible, her intonation unshakable. In the duet with Salvini, she exclaims ‘Infelice, in te rinvieni!’ with vehemence tinged with fear, and her articulation of ‘Di piacer la voce echeggi!’ in the Act One finale evinces the upheaval of Nelly’s predicament. In a misstep that he would not repeat in the operas that followed Adelson e Salvini, Bellini gave Nelly little to do in Acts Two and Three, but Barcellona’s Nelly is noticed even when she is not the center of attention. Her distinctive voice emerges from the ensemble in the opera’s final scene as it should, the long-suffering girl’s peace of mind finally restored. Nelly’s music poses few challenges to Barcellona’s technique, but her performance is by no means small-scaled. Nelly is not Norma, but in this performance she achieves the stature that her music commands.

No one would object more vigorously to proclaiming Adelson e Salvini an unjustly-neglected masterpiece than Bellini himself, but, typical of the label’s endeavors, Opera Rara’s recording presents the opera so winningly that its importance in both its composer’s artistic development and the evolution of opera in the Nineteenth Century cannot be denied. The value of any performance or recording must ultimately be determined by its musical merits, however, and on these terms Opera Rara’s Adelson e Salvini is a complete success. Even amidst the lofty milieux of opera, this Adelson e Salvini asserts, education can sometimes be wonderfully entertaining!

27 April 2017

CD REVIEW: Carl Heinrich Graun — OPERA ARIAS (Julia Lezhneva, soprano; DECCA 483 1518)

IN REVIEW: Carl Heinrich Graun - OPERA ARIAS (DECCA 483 1518)CARL HEINRICH GRAUN (1703 or 1704 – 1759): Opera AriasJulia Lezhneva, soprano; Concerto Köln; Mikhail Antonenko, conductor [Recorded in Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln, Germany, 17 – 18, 26 – 27, and 29 – 30 September 2016; DECCA 483 1518; 1 CD, 65:12; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), iTunes, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In the summer of 1966, an ensemble of singers including Lauris Elms, Monica Sinclair, and Dame Joan Sutherland gathered alongside the Ambrosian Singers and London Philharmonic Orchestra in London’s Kingsway Hall to record excerpts from a pair of operas that by the middle of the Twentieth Century had been dormant for more than two hundred years. The subject of the first of these curiosities, a storied paragon of patience and virtue immortalized in literature by Giovanni Boccaccio, was one of the most popular operatic heroines of the Eighteenth Century, an inspiration to Antonio Maria Bononcini, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi. Rather than the work of any of these acknowledged masters, it was Giovanni Battista Bononcini’s 1733 London opera Griselda that Sutherland’s husband Richard Bonynge resurrected for the studio microphones. Griselda’s unlikely companion in the eventual DECCA compact disc reissue was another of Baroque opera’s most widely-traveled characters, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, the ruler of the Aztec empire at the time of Spanish conquest. Like Griselda, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin was given an operatic outing of excellent quality by Vivaldi, but it was to a setting of the Aztec emperor’s encounter with Hernán Cortés by Carl Heinrich Graun that Bonynge turned his attention. First performed at Berlin’s Hofoper in 1755, Graun’s Montezuma was distinguished by a libretto adapted from Voltaire’s Alzire, ou Les Américains by Friedrich der Große, the music-loving King of Prussia at whose court the composer served as Kapellmeister for nearly two decades. A half-century after Sutherland and Bonynge devoted their considerable powers to exposing the beauties of Graun’s Montezuma, a DECCA release is again the vehicle for a riveting rediscovery of wonderful music by this still-neglected composer. Backed by acclaimed period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln, young Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva lends her pellucid timbre and quicksilver technique to performances of eleven arias from seven of Graun’s operas, not one of which has been revived in modern times. A fascinating journey through music that deserves to be heard, this disc creates a compelling portrait of Graun as both composer and dramatist. Likewise, it introduces Julia Lezhneva as not only a superb vocalist, in which rôle she has earned plaudits throughout the world, but also as a surefooted musical spelunker, able and willing to descend into the cavernous recesses of archives and libraries in search of scores awaiting a modern interpreter to reawaken them.

The presence of a question mark after the date of a composer’s birth often indicates a lack of reliable information about the education and experience that contributed to his mature artistry. Carl Heinrich Graun was born in Wahrenbrück in Brandenburg; whether in 1701, 1703, or 1704—the years put forth as contenders by most sources—has not yet been definitively established. The young Graun and his brother are documented as having been members of the famous Dresdner Kreuzchor, and Graun’s musical studies were likely divided between voice and composition. In the years prior to his engagement as Kapellmeister at the court of Friedrich der Große, Graun was a respected chorister, tenor soloist, and composer in theatres in Dresden, Braunschweig, and Rheinsberg. It was in the last of these cities that he likely made the acquaintance of his future royal employer, having been commissioned to write an opera in celebration of then Crown Prince Friedrich’s 1733 nuptials. Despite Friedrich’s obvious fondness for his work, which some evidence suggests was secondary in the king’s affection to his singing, Graun’s music was seemingly quickly forgotten after the composer’s death in Berlin in 1759. Like his near contemporary Johann Adolf Hasse, Graun’s works were not unknown to fellow artists and connoisseurs like Mozart and his staunch supporter in Imperial Vienna, Baron van Swieten, but only the 1755 Passion cantata Der Tod Jesu and a few instrumental pieces preserved Graun’s name from complete oblivion until the Twentieth Century’s revival of interest in Montezuma, Cesare e Cleopatra, and other of the composer’s works.

Concerto Köln’s acquaintance with Graun’s operatic style extends back more than two decades. In 1995, following a production first heard at the Festival Baroque de Versailles in 1992 and later staged at Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, the orchestra and a fine cast conducted by René Jacobs recorded a sterling account of Graun’s 1742 opera Cesare e Cleopatra, the work commissioned by Friedrich der Große two-and-a-half centuries earlier to inaugurate Berlin’s newly-built Königliches Opernhaus. Here sharing concertmaster duties under the direction of conductor Mikhail Antonenko, Dmitry Sinkovsky and Emilio Percan lead today’s Concerto Köln in pursuing the same goals of historically-informed and emotionally-engaged playing that have been hallmarks of the ensemble’s performance since the group’s formation in 1985. Guided by the emotional contexts of the music, the tempi enacted on this disc are consistently intelligent, those for extroverted utterances excitingly challenging and those for contemplative passages beguilingly lilting. The stylish, imaginative playing of lutenist Luca Pianca further enhances the appeal of the disc’s instrumental substratum. The orchestra’s performance of the Sinfonia from Graun’s opera Rodelinda, regina de’ Langobardi, a subject familiar from Händel’s 1725 setting of a revision of the Antonio Salvi libretto that inspired both Giacomo Antonio Perti in 1710 and Graun in 1741 [in fact, Graun employed an adaptation by Giovanni Gualberto Bottarelli of the revision of Salvi’s libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym set by Händel], is an ideal example of the aesthetic that Concerto Köln’s playing on this disc exemplifies: sounding wholly appropriate for music composed in the first half of the Eighteenth Century to the extent that practices of that era are now understood, the orchestral textures are full-bodied, fully convincing backdrops for the emotional tableaux of the arias.

Unlike Gluck’s and Bertoni’s later operatic treatments of the Orpheus myth, Graun’s 1752 opera L’Orfeo included a dramatis personæ expanded beyond the lyre-wielding hero, his ill-fated bride, and an amorous deity. The aria ‘Sento una pena’ is sung by Aspasia, the Thracian queen who vies with Euridice for Orfeo’s love, and Lezhneva responds to the aria’s despondent sentiments with vocalism of unnerving immediacy, the forward placement of vowels enabling her to darken the sound to suit the text without distorting or dulling her naturally gleaming timbre. Frightened by the potential consequences of Aspasia’s jealousy, Euridice incites Orfeo to flee with her in ‘Il mar s’inalza e freme,’ a virtuosic simile aria comparable in quality to the best of Vivaldi’s writing in this vein. The ease with which Lezhneva meets the music’s bravura demands is flabbergasting, but there is content in her coloratura. The soprano’s vocal fireworks are dizzyingly impressive, but she does not allow the listener to ignore the dramatic events that light the fuses of Graun’s rockets of notes. A touching lament for the fallen Euridice sung by Orfeo’s brother Aristeo, ‘D’ogni aura al mormorar’ receives from Lezhneva a traversal of limpid melancholy, the gravity of the words intensified by the deftness with which the singer extends the line.

Most familiar to modern listeners in her later Gluckian guise, Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra—or, according to some writers, of Theseus and Helen—and sister of Orestes and Electra, is another figure who was popular with composers throughout the Eighteenth Century. Graun contended with the unfortunate girl’s plight in his 1748 opera Ifigenia in Aulide. Lezhneva offers an aria for Ifigenia’s father, the Greek king Agamemnone, ‘Sforzerò l’avverso mare.’ Her singing here exudes the much-tested monarch’s authority, as well as the psychological toll of his tribulation. The soprano is often at her best when dispatching fiorature at breakneck velocity, but in this music she makes an equally cogent impression with her handling of rests and verbal cadences. Her Italian diction is not that of a native speaked but is generally accurate without being exaggerated. Dating from 1749, Volunnia’s aria ‘Senza di te, mio bene’ from Coriolano is sufficient to establish Graun’s reputation as a significant composer of opera, and Lezhneva finds in its expressive phrases a splendid outlet for her musical and dramatic sensibilities, her account of the aria glistening with ornaments that complement her nuanced handling of the text.

Perhaps the most frequently-mined lode of operatic source material during the Eighteenth Century was Torquato Tasso’s 1581 epic Gerusalemme liberata. Even before Händel composed Rinaldo, the first Italian opera written exclusively for the London stage, in 1711, Tasso’s Armida had already served as the heroine of a tragédie en musique by Lully, and she would go on to collect operatic homages from Haydn, Rossini, and Dvořák. In 1751, Graun’s Armida brought the pagan sorceress and her romantic tangle with the Christian knight Rinaldo to Friedrich der Große’s Hofoper. Lezhneva first sings the knight Ubaldo’s entreaty to Rinaldo to seek glory in righteous conflict rather than pleasure in the company of Armida, ‘La gloria t’invita.’ This spirited exhortation makes formidable technical demands, but the soprano’s negotiations of the difficult passagework and carefully-managed breath control conquer the aria’s pitfalls. Of a vastly different but no less daunting nature is Armida’s aria ‘A tanti pianti miei,’ in her singing of which Lezhneva, persuasively impersonating the legendary enchantress, invokes her own dazzling musical wizardry, casting an unbreakable spell with her scintillating upper register.

The eponymous protagonist of Graun’s 1750 opera Il Mithridate is familiar as the hero of the fourteen-year-old Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto, but the aria selected for inclusion on this disc, ‘Piangete, o mesti lumi,’ belongs to Rosmiri, a character not present in Mozart’s opera. The evenness of Lezhneva’s singing throughout the range of the music highlights the faculty with which Graun wrote for voices, whether those of castrati or female singers. The potency of the soprano’s limning of Rosmiri’s despair is touching, all the more so for her vocalism being cleanly articulated. With a libretto in which his royal patron had a hand, Graun’s Silla from 1753 visited territory covered in Händel’s little-remembered Lucio Cornelio Silla, as well as in the young Mozart’s Lucio Silla. Ottavia’s vehement recitative ‘Parmi...ah no!’ and aria ‘Venga pure, e ardita, e forte’ are performed by Lezhneva and Concerto Köln with histrionic fire that ignites the intricacies of the composer’s part writing. The incisiveness of the singer’s phrasing of Postumio’s aria ‘No, no, di Libia fra l’arene’ spurs appreciation of Graun’s great talent for musical storytelling. Lezhneva’s discovery of Agrippina’s aria ‘Mi paventi il figlio indegno’ from Graun’s 1751 opera Britannico is cited in George Loomis’s concisely informative liner notes as the catalyst for the soprano’s interest in the composer’s music and the impetus for this recording project. As she sings the aria here, Graun could hope for no more eloquent, committed, and purely beautiful a starting point for the modern listener eager to explore his music.

Even when recorded with the technological finesse achieved in the engineering of this disc, voices can be difficult to analyze and assess in the context of studio recordings. Julia Lezhneva’s illustrious predecessor in the DECCA Graun discography is a perfect case study. Among Dame Joan Sutherland’s many recordings for the label, almost all of which are worthwhile documents of the continuous development of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest voices, her recording of Puccini’s Turandot comes nearest to faithfully capturing the remarkable amplitude and sheer aural impact of Sutherland’s instrument in the opera house. In terms of tonal heft, Lezhneva is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sutherland, but her voice, too, tests recording technicians’ skills. Tending to sound brittle and monochromatic if recorded in unsympathetic acoustics, Lezhneva’s voice is an instrument of innumerable shadows and overtones, the bright sheen of the timbre extending from a gossamer mezza voce to clarion tintinnabulation that projects with power surprising for a voice of modest dimensions. In the performances on this disc, Lezhneva’s voice is placed in an aural space in which her tones have ample resonance, possessing just enough of a metallic edge to oblige the listener to devote as much attention to the musical and dramatic details of Graun’s arias as the singer has done. With this welcome disc, Lezhneva absorbingly refines her artistry and adds Graun’s voice to the growing conversation about the important operatic innovators of the first half of the Eighteenth Century.

24 April 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (K. Sampson, M. Giordani, A. Bogdanov, J. McKinney, G. Bocchino, A. Harreveld, D. Hartmann, C. DuPont, D. Boye, N. Nestorak, J. McEvoy; Opera Carolina, 23 April 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: The cast of Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del WestKristin Sampson (Minnie), Marcello Giordano (Dick Johnson), Aleksey Bogdanov (Jack Rance), Jason S. McKinney (Ashby), Gianluca Bocchino (Nick), Giovanni Guagliardo (Sonora), Johnathan White (Joe), Joshua Wild (Bello), David Clark (Happy), Noah Rice (Harry), Michael Francis Stomar (Jim Larkens), Donald Hartmann (Billy Jackrabbit), Carl DuPont (José Castro), Dan Boye (Sid), Nicholas Nestorak (Trin), Jeffrey McEvoy (Jake Wallace), Anna Harreveld (Wowkle), John Harmon (Un postiglione); Men of the Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Ivan Stefanutti, Director; Stefano Nicolao, Costume Designer; Michael Baumgarten, Digital Projection Designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 23 April 2017]

In his biography of the man of dubious morals who was purported to be the model for the irreproachable protagonist of Owen Wister’s genre-defining novel The Virginian, John Watson wrote that ‘Los Angeles has never been a truly civilized place.’ Many of the Easterners who trekked to the Bear Republic in search of fame or fortune would surely have agreed that all of California could be a land of misery and misfortune, its beauties at once seductive and inhospitable. Whatever chivalry existed in the early California of Spanish missionaries, haciendas, and rancheros was quickly obliterated by the coarse manners and lawlessness that poured over the Sierra Nevada with prospectors in search of quick fortunes to be extracted from the celebrated lodes of the romanticized West. Careful study of history dispels the notion of California’s near-mythical Forty-Niners having been mostly a poorly-educated, hard-living lot, but the fraternity of work-wearied miners who populate David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West owe what education and humanity of which they can boast to the eponymous Girl, the disarmingly unsophisticated but intriguingly complex proprietress of the Polka Saloon. That Belasco’s Girl was an unlikely sister for Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Tosca, and Cio-Cio San, the last of these another lady to whom the Italian composer was introduced by a Belasco dramatization, made her all the more tantalizing. The musical characterization that resulted is one of Puccini’s most endearing, but the difficulty of the music that the Girl of the Golden West and her fellow residents of the Cloudy Mountain mining camp makes her an infrequent visitor to the world’s stages. Again treading into territory avoided by many of America’s regional opera companies, Opera Carolina brought La fanciulla del West to Charlotte with seismic passion befitting the opera’s fault-straddling setting. Why Fanciulla is neglected when Puccini’s other mature operas maintain prominence in the international repertory was obvious, but Opera Carolina’s performance fired Fanciulla’s virtues into the theatre with the accuracy of Annie Oakley’s rifle. Anyone in the audience who failed to take a shot to the heart wore armor impervious to opera at its best.

Commissioned during the managerial administration of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, La fanciulla del West was composed to order for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, by which company the opera was premièred on 10 December 1910, with Arturo Toscanini conducting and a cast including Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as the ‘road agent’ Dick Johnson (né Ramerrez), and Pasquale Amato as Sheriff Jack Rance. Immediately recognized as a work of exemplary musical craftsmanship, Fanciulla nonetheless failed to attain the level of popularity enjoyed by La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. The demands exacted on singers, musicians, and conductor by Fanciulla are as imposing as the Sierra Nevada themselves, but, like the backbreaking work of the miners, the toil is richly rewarded.

Conducting with firm grasps on both the opera’s unflinching directness and its uncanny emotional impact, Opera Carolina’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena provided the focus and propulsion that a performance of Fanciulla needs without neglecting any of the score’s meticulously-wrought details. There was an abiding cinematic expansiveness to Meena’s approach, but this was not a Fanciulla that seemed like a film score with voices. The conductor’s gift for inspiring the Opera Carolina Chorus and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was much in evidence in the excellence of the ensembles’ work. Fanciulla is a daunting score for even the best-trained musicians, and the Charlotteans marvelously rose to the challenge. Harpist Amber Joy Carpenter1 earned particular praise for her beautiful playing. Perhaps American musicians feel for this score something like the pride that Italians feel for Nabucco and the Viennese for Der Rosenkavalier, but the choral singing, orchestral playing, and conducting in Charlotte would distinguish a production of Fanciulla in any of the world’s great opera houses. The drama progressed at a near-ideal pace: nothing lingered beyond its capacity to captivate, and successive events had clarity and cohesion. Narratively, Fanciulla is arguably Puccini’s most tautly-constructed work, with no offstage madrigals or farewells to overcoats to delay the resolutions of scenes, and Meena insightfully steered the performance through the few pages of the scores that can present problems with momentum. During his seventeen-year tenure with the company, Meena has been on the podium for many of Opera Carolina’s greatest successes, among which was an unforgettable Turandot in 2015. This performance of La fanciulla del West raised the bar for future Opera Carolina seasons and for the quality of productions of Fanciulla throughout the world.

A native Californian, David Belasco worked before his theatrical aspirations took him to New York as stage manager at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada, a bustling town enriched by the high-quality silver extracted from the Comstock Lode. The experience that he gained in this bastion of the legendary Old West served him well throughout his career, which encompassed not only Broadway success and collaborations with Puccini but also nurturing the development of talented young actors, one of whom, Barbara Stanwyck, would eventually portray one of the foremost heroines of American television Westerns, Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley. In Opera Carolina’s production of Fanciulla, an ambitious joint venture with Teatro di Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, and the revitalized New York City Opera, it looked as though at any moment in the performance the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa, the Graingers of Shiloh, or any of the familiar figures of America’s fictionalized West might have strode onto the stage. Historical accuracy was not among Puccini’s foremost goals when creating a score, but his operatic excursion into the American West, guided by the first-hand knowledge that enlivened Belasco’s play, is distinguished by a magnitude of realism rare even in verismo.

Fanciulla takes place circa 1850, not long after the first large-scale discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Mexican California in 1848 [the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ceded modern California to the United States of America, was not signed until nine days after the initial discovery at Sutter’s Mill], and conjuring an atmosphere reflecting the opera’s physical and temporal settings was a central focus in Opera Carolina’s production. Rather than frequently-encountered depictions as a cigar-store Indian and his daft squaw, for instance, Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle were here credible representatives of California’s indigenous peoples; in the case of those in proximity to gold-mining country, perhaps the Modoc. Nevertheless, theatricality was not lost amidst the visual verisimilitude embodied by Atelier Nicolai’s costumes, Ivan Stefanutti’s production designs, and the sets and digital projections, supervised by Opera Carolina’s Director of Production Michael Baumgarten and built in the company’s Gastonia workshop. Granted access to the company’s San Francisco archives by the Charlotte office of Wells Fargo, the production team brought to the Belk Theater stage a California mining camp as authentic as any that has existed in the century since the cessation of mining transformed once-vibrant boom towns into dusty, deserted ghost towns. The stenches of whiskey and cigar smoke veritably wafted from the interior of Opera Carolina’s Polka Saloon, a raucous establishment tamed in an instant by its Girl and her Bible lessons—and her six shooter. Instead of the Halloween-cowboy pageants often imposed upon Puccini’s opera, this was a Fanciulla so absorbing that it was surprising not to hear the jangling of spurs and shot glasses during the interval.

IN PERFORMANCE: the cast of Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Ciao, ragazzi: the cast of Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

The degree to which Puccini and his librettists, Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, were faithful to Belasco’s play is remarkable, not least in the subtly-characterized vignettes of Cloudy Mountain’s miners and patrons of the Polka Saloon. Amidst the perils of Belasco’s mining camp, where missteps can send the careless plummeting into the abyss and misspeaks might be rewarded with gunfire no less fatal, thoughtfulness is a precious commodity, and the tender hearts amongst the hardscrabble denizens of Puccini’s Cloudy Mountain therefore beat still more perceptibly. As the Postiglione—not, as Belaso (but not Puccini) and Opera Carolina’s playbill and supertitles indicated, a Pony Express rider, as the Pony Express only rode for nineteen months, a decade after Fanciulla takes place—who electrifies the Polka with the fateful message from the treacherous woman of ill repute, Nina Micheltoreña [she loses her tilde in Italian, pobrecita], indicating her willingness to betray the bandit she loved to Wells Fargo, John Harmon delivered his lines with equal expediency and effectiveness. The miners Joe, Bello, Harry, and Happy, each having his moment in the spotlight, were brought to life with good singing and acting by Johnathan White, Joshua Wild, Noah Rice, and David Clark. Bass-baritones Jason S. McKinney and Carl DuPont as Wells Fargo agent Ashby and his quarry José Castro, a member of Ramerrez’s party of stagecoach robbers, deployed firm, focused voices in Puccini’s congenial lines and clearly enjoyed playing their parts in the drama.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Harreveld opened Act Two with a portrayal of Minnie’s Native American domestic Wowkle that was laudably free of caricature, her singing of ‘Il mio bimbo è grande e piccino’ unusually attractive. Her shy glances at her mistress as she entertained Johnson spoke volumes about the girl’s attachment to Minnie. An operatic Buster Keaton with the vocal resonance of Nazzareno De Angelis, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann set the wooden Billy Jackrabbit, Wowkle’s intended consort, ablaze with aptly earthy vocalism. Affability boomed from his singing of ‘Tua padrona mandare. Dice: Billy sposare.’ Special care was expended in lessening the pejorative implications of Wowkle’s and Billy’s frequent articulations of ‘Ugh.’ Communicative rather than offensively indicative of savagery in this performance, the monosyllables were neither more nor less than the knowing private language of a community of two.

As Sid, Belasco’s ‘Sidney Duck,’ bass-baritone Dan Boye protested his punishment for cheating at cards without overdoing the histrionics, and, like all of his fellow citizens of Cloudy Mountain, the sincerity of this Sid’s devotion to Minnie could not be questioned. Tenor Nicholas Nestorak was a stylish, sympathetic Trinidad, and baritone Jeffrey McEvoy made the minstrel Jake Wallace’s Andante tranquillo ballad ‘Che faranno i vecchi miei là lontano’ an interlude of moving but not overwrought nostalgia. Michael Francis Stromar voiced the broken Jim Larkens’s longing to return home, ‘Non reggo più, non reggo più, ragazzi,’ heartbreakingly, legitimizing the magnanimous reaction of his friends, whose collection of funds for Larkens’s homeward journey is as poignant in its way as Mimì’s and Cio-Cio San’s deaths in La bohème and Madama Butterfly. Tenor Gianluca Bocchino sang appealingly as Nick, the Polka’s wily barkeep, the character’s concern for Minnie’s welfare as palpable as his boundless affection for her, but he sometimes struggled to project over Puccini’s orchestrations. Baritone Giovanni Guagliardo was a tough but tender Sonora, singing ‘Le tue parole sono di Dio’ in Act Three eloquently. In the opera’s final scene, the miners’ repetitions of ‘Mai più ritornerai, no, mai più, mai più’ were profoundly touching, their sadness at Minnie’s departure from Cloudy Mountain as expansive as the California landscapes that surrounded them.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Bass-baritone JASON S. MCKINNEY as Ashby, soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie, and baritone ALEKSEY BOGDANOV as Jack Rance in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]The lady and the law: (from left to right) Bass-baritone Jason S. McKinney as Ashby, soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie, and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Jack Rance in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

In terms of the leading rôles in Puccini’s operas, only Turandot is as difficult to cast as La fanciulla del West. Rance and Johnson demand vocal and dramatic resources at least as great as those wielded by the best interpreters of their counterparts in Tosca and Il tabarro. Ideally, Minnie requires a voice poised between Tosca and Turandot, allying a reliable lower octave with an upper extension capable of scaling the formidable heights of the tessitura and soaring in her Act One aria to one of opera’s most ferocious exposed top Cs. The ranks of great Toscas and Turandots are hardly overpopulated, but great Minnies are still fewer. Two of the finest American exponents of the rôle, Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, would likely have been advised by competent vocal coaches to avoid the part, which since it was recorded by Birgit Nilsson has often been assigned to singers with credentials in Wagner and Richard Strauss repertories rather than Puccinians—if, that is, bonafide Puccinians have existed in the years since Renata Tebaldi sang her final Minnie. In the seasons since the opera’s centennial in 2010, Fanciulla has been performed more often than in decades past, but the casting of Rance, Johnson, and Minnie in a number of productions has reaffirmed the near-impossibility of manning a production of Fanciulla with singers capable of more than basic survival in the lead rôles. Here, too, Opera Carolina succeeded astonishingly, giving the Charlotte audience a central trio by no means unworthy of music first sung by Amato, Caruso, and Destinn.

Jack Rance, Cloudy Mountain’s rugged lawman, is, perhaps in spite of himself, one of Puccini’s most three-dimensional characters. Duplicitous, jealous, and merciless, even he is ennobled to some extent by his interactions with Minnie. As portrayed by baritone Alexsey Bogdanov in Opera Carolina’s Fanciulla, he was conniving but conflicted, lust never wholly overwhelming an inherent decorum. At the start of Act One, his singing of ‘Che terra maledetta, quest’occidente d’oro!’ evinced bitterness, but there was sly humor in the calm professionalism of ‘Andiam, ragazzi; un po’ di calma’ and his handling of Sid’s transgression. The rancor between Rance and Ashby in Belasco is muted by Puccini, and Bogdanov’s Rance presented his counterpart to the Polka’s customers with a hearty account of ‘Ragazzi, fate largo! Salute a mister Ashby, dell’Agenzia Wells Fargo.’ The utter conviction with which he referred to Minnie as ‘Mistress Rance, fra poco’ was both arrogant and strangely vulnerable, the sardonic gambler suddenly revealing his hand. As much sweetness as such a man can muster was infused into the baritone’s singing of ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie,’ and Bogdanov phrased the lovely Andante sostenuto ‘Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito ch’è là dai monti’ with awkward but affecting feeling. None too happy about a stranger’s interruption of his floundering wooing of Minnie, Rance’s frustration burgeoned in Bogdanov’s virile singing of ‘Mister Johnson, voi m’avete seccato!’ and ‘Ragazzi! Uno straniero ricusa confessare perchè si trova al campo!’

Stealing like the howling blizzard into Minnie’s cabin in Act Two, the boyish glee with which Bogdanov’s Rance voiced ‘Abbiamo detto che il tuo perfetto Johnson di Sacramento,’ disavowing Minnie of her imperfect acquaintance with her ‘dandy,’ was disgustingly smug. Later, returning in search of the injured Johnson, he corrected Minnie with a brutal reading of ‘Non son Jack...Son lo Sceriffo, a caccia del tuo Johnson d’inferno.’ Bogdanov’s body language conveyed the tension of the poker game for Minnie’s and Johnson’s freedom as grippingly as his flinty singing. Conceding defeat, he departed with a growled ‘Buona notte’ that imparted far more than a crestfallen goodbye. The full force of Rance’s anger and disenfranchisement exploded in Act Three, and Bogdanov recalled Louis Quilico with a startlingly vehement account of ‘Or piangi tu, o Minnie, or piangi tu!’ Throughout the performance, Bogdanov’s top Fs were perfectly-pitched and powerful, and he filled the theatre with exhilaratingly masculine sound without shouting. The irony that radiated from his singing of ‘E così, Mister Johnson, come va?’ was as stinging as the blow he dealt his captured rival for Minnie’s love, and his tones when he hurled ‘Basta, donna, alle tue parole!’ at Minnie were those of a man already past the point of no return—a man who declared in Act One that he fears no destiny but is shattered by circumstances that he cannot manipulate. Clad in a suit of a hue that seemed drawn from the depths of Lake Tahoe, Bogdanov was a thrillingly-sung Rance who was all the more dangerous for being so debonair.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor MARCELLO GIORDANI as Johnson (left) and soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Passion at the Polka: Tenor Marcello Giordani as Johnson (left) and soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

With a career that has taken him to the world’s most celebrated opera houses for performances of a wide repertory encompassing many of the most difficult rôles written for the tenor voice, Marcello Giordani is among the few truly qualified heirs to the legacy of Bergonzi and Corelli. Bergonzi and Corelli were very different singers, of course, and at his best Giordani has exemplified the finest qualities of both of his forebears, combining aspects of Bergonzi’s grace and musicality with Corelli’s unbridled intensity. Although he unwisely ventured the title rôle in Verdi’s Otello very late in his career, Bergonzi never sang Johnson, but Puccini’s bandito was a good fit for Corelli, not least opposite Dorothy Kirsten’s feminine but fearless Minnie in the 1966 MET revival of Fanciulla. When the MET celebrated the opera’s hundredth anniversary in the 2010 – 2011 Season, it was to Giordani that Johnson’s music was entrusted. Solely as singing, the tenor’s performance of the rôle was in many ways more successful in Charlotte than in New York. The voice’s lower octave was slow in coming under control and could turn unruly at any time throughout the afternoon, but pitches were mostly placed accurately and solidly. Most notably, Giordani left sobbing and other Italian tenor mannerisms to other singers, preferring simply to sing the music. Strutting into the Polka’s barroom, ready to face the threatened ‘hair curling’ he garnered by ordering whiskey with water, Johnson was stopped in his tracks by recognizing Minnie as the enchanting girl he once met on the road to Monterey. Giordano’s voice lacked the youthful vigor needed for ‘Chi c’è, per farmi i ricci?’ but exuded the bashful wonder of ‘Vi ricordate di me?’ His voicing of ‘Non so ben neppur io quel che sono’ flowed organically to a brilliant top B♭, and the tenor’s dulcet phrasing of the beautiful Andante mosso moderatamente ‘Quello che tacete me l’ha detto il cor’ revealed his instinctive comprehension of Puccini’s style.

The ardor of ‘Un bacio, un bacio almen!’ in Act Two surged without vulgarity, and Giordano lent his singing of ‘Minnie! Che dolce nome!’—a line that, largely owing to supertitles, inexplicably prompts laughter from today’s audiences—romantic restraint that heightened the significance of the sentiment. Giordani joined his Minnie in an incandescent performance of their unison ‘Dolce vivere e morir e non lasciarci più’ in which they soared with few hints of effort to the top B♭s and C. Revealed as Ramerrez, the bandit being pursued by Wells Fargo, Johnson’s explanation of the circumstances that precipitated his criminal enterprise fell on ears too consumed by pealing anger to fully hear and process his words, but Giordani sang ‘Ma non vi avrei rubato!’ and discharged Johnson’s repeated top B♭s with enthralling enthusiasm. Giordani sang Johnson’s aria in Act Three, the emotionally-charged Andante molto lento ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano,’ with a stream of glowing, easily-projected tone, rising to the pair of top B♭s strongly. The quiet relief and honest gratitude with which he voiced ‘Grazie, fratelli’ after Sonora and the miners freed him from the noose and reunited him with Minnie succinctly disclosed the essence of the complicated but honorable character Giordani had personified throughout the performance. Bidding farewell to the land of Johnson’s youth, Giordani addressed ‘Addio, mia dolce terra’ as much to the peaks and valleys of his life as to the California topography, the top B a cry of rebirth. Having an artist of Giordani’s reputation in Charlotte is an accomplishment of which the city should be proud, but having a Johnson of the quality provided by Giordani in Opera Carolina’s La fanciulla del West was a priceless gift to opera lovers.

A performance of La bohème can overcome poor singing from its Mimì, but Minnie in Fanciulla faces the most daunting fate of any Puccini heroine: survival. The vocal sins of an inadequate Mimì are easily forgiven when she breathes her last in the company of her friends, but Minnie, whose resilience is the backbone of Fanciulla, has no tragedy behind which to hide. Upon her shoulders, the opera soars or sinks, and soprano Kristin Sampson, a diminutive Atlas with a voice of satin and steel, lofted Opera Carolina’s Fanciulla into the endless California sky with an imaginative but delightfully straightforward portrayal of Minnie. Though reinforced by a shot from her pistol, this Minnie’s entrance was sufficient to end the fracas among Rance, Sonora, and their factions in Act One, her pointed query ‘Che cos’è stato?’ reducing the burly men to stuttering embarrassment. Beginning the miners’ coveted Bible lesson, Sampson voiced the Andantino ‘Dove eravamo? Ruth...Ezechiel’ and the plaintive ‘Lavami e sarò bianco come neve’ girlishly, laying the foundation of belief in redemption and rejuvenation upon which the opera’s final scene is built. Derisively describing Nina Micheltoreña when the Postiglione brought news of the harlot’s proposed meeting with Ashby, her voice assumed an air of coquetry as she insinuated ‘È una finta spagnuola nativa di Cachuca.’ Sparring with Rance, for whom the respect she invoked was genuine, was for Sampson’s Minnie sport without the slightest indication of ill will. The surprise and hurt of Rance’s betrayal of the cordiality of their relationship were therefore heightened.

Sampson approached Minnie’s Andantino aria ‘Laggiù nel Soledad, ero piccina’ not as a showpiece but as a rare reverie in which the girl allowed herself to reminisce about the distant joys of her childhood. The soprano ascended to a bright, secure top C, but this was a component rather than the goal of her performance of the aria. Energized by Johnson’s unexpected arrival at the Polka, Sampson’s Minnie vouched for him with an ‘Io lo conosco! Innanzi al campo intero...sto garante per Johnson!’ of inviolable integrity. When invited to dance, the innocence at the core of Sampson’s mirthful reading of ‘Io? Scusatemi: voi non lo crederete, non ho mai ballato in vita mia’ was enchanting. Guarded surrender to new feelings emanated from her singing of ‘Mister Johnson, siete rimasto indiestro a farmi compagnia per custodir la casa?’ Her well-schooled vocalism notwithstanding, it was impossible to doubt this Minnie when she asserted ‘Io non son che una povera fanciulla’ and punctuated the declaration with a shining top B. There is no more bewitchingly self-effacing remark in opera than Minnie’s ‘Non v’aspettate molto! Non ho che trenta dollari soli d’educazione,’ in which she ashamedly warns Johnson of the dullness of her conversation owing to her education amounting to only what thirty dollars can buy, and Sampson sang the lines without a trace of artifice. Remembering Johnson’s parting words, she caressed each syllable of ‘Come ha detto? Un viso d’angelo,’ ending Act One with a sigh of reawakened love.

Few characters in opera experience greater personal upheaval than Minnie endures in Act Two of La fanciulla del West. Preparing the mountainside cabin—and herself—to host Johnson, Sampson’s Minnie proclaimed ‘Voglio vestirmi tutta come in giorno di festa’ with boundless joy, her top B♭ like a beacon to guide Johnson along the craggy path to her welcoming abode. As in her aria in Act One, she phrased ‘Oh, se sapeste come il vivere è allegro!’ in a manner in which her stunning top B was an extension of the line rather than its own destination. Sampson’s fortissimo top C when Minnie awarded her first kiss to Johnson left no doubt about the breadth of her elation. Having embraced these new sensations, the upending of her world when Rance brusquely informed her that her lover was deceiving her was devastating. Sampson vaulted ‘Vieni fuori, vieni fuori, vieni fuor!’ into the theatre with abandon, her top B♭ glinting. The rising tide of her desperation crested on the soprano’s incendiary voicing of ‘Vigliacco! Ah! Via di qua, vigliacco!’ She gamely touched the top C♯ that Puccini cruelly requested, the roar of a wounded soul. The scene in which Minnie challenges Rance to a life-or-death game of poker is nothing short of genius, and Puccini’s orchestration, reducing the soundscape to percussion amplifying the palpitations of Minnie’s heart, is the work of a keen theatrical sensibility. Sampson suggested ‘Una partita a poker!’ with pluck that tempered her anxiety. Having distracted Rance and produced the winning hand from the folds of her skirt, this Minnie’s ‘Vi sbagliate. È la gioia! Ho vinto io! Tre assi e un paio!’ brandished the brawn of Brünnhilde’s battle cry. The string of top As as Minnie entered in Act Three streaked across the gloomy scene like lightning, and even at the foot of the scaffold the miners’ faces were illuminated with the happiness that Minnie brought to them. Sampson sang ‘Di qual giustizia parli tu?’ potently, and with ‘Non vi fumai chi disse: Basta!’ she scolded the society into which she introduced the concepts of compassion and forgiveness. This was her final lesson to her beloved friends: as Hermann Hesse put it, there are situations in which letting go requires greater strength of character than holding on. Sampson’s Minnie was a fighter without enmity, in voice as much as in spirit a true Girl of the Golden West.

Puccini is often conceded to be an important composer of opera but is seldom if ever cited as a great composer in a broader sense. On the whole, it is difficult to dispute the validity of such an assessment, but hearing a persuasive performance of La fanciulla del West can convince an open-minded listener that Puccini was far more than a purveyor of pretty tunes and weepy melodramas. Much has been written about the shadows of Debussy, Richard Strauss, and even Wagner that stretch across the rocky vistas of La fanciulla del West, but the voice that emerges most viscerally from the score is Puccini’s. Opera Carolina’s production of La fanciulla del West let Puccini’s voice be heard without obstruction, not just putting on a marvelous show but reclaiming the hope of a time in which prosperity was measured not by bank balances and possessions but by hard work, honesty, and fairness. This was a Fanciulla del West that rekindled the famous words of Walt Whitman: in this performance, one could hear America singing.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor MARCELLO GIORDANI as Johnson (left) and soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Revolver to the rescue: Tenor Marcello Giordani as Johnson (left) and soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

1Apologies to Amber Joy Carpenter for having erroneously cited another harpist in the initial publication of this review.